William Moorcroft–Himalayan Traveller Extraordinary

Of all the 19th-century travellers in the Himalaya (or perhaps anywhere else), not one left such an immense volume of informative material as William Moorcroft.

Moorcroft, the first Englishman to qualify as a vet, and Superintendent of the Hon’ble East India Company’s Military Stud, travelled supposedly in search of breeding stock for the Stud. But his interest ranged far and wide beyond horses. He was an economic imperialist who dreamt of opening up the limitless expanses of south and central Asia to British manufactures, hence in even the remotest villages of the Himalaya he was alert to describe the ornaments and tools used by the ‘natives’, with a view to the possible commercial opportunities of supplying similar or better from England. His bent of mind was scientific, and he noticed and commented on the geology, the botany, the climate, the agriculture, the human and physical geography, even the history, of the territories through which he passed. (But not much about the language and religions of the peoples he met; at some point he explicitly disclaims the expertise necessary to comment on those subjects.) He was an indefatigable scribbler, noting down his observations in diaries, and inordinately long reports and letters addressed to a string of correspondents.

The result is an enormous mass of writing, documenting his travels to Lake Mansarowar (1812), and Ladakh, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Bokhara (1820–25); he also collected information from a variety of respondents about the neighbouring countries. His last and greatest journey lasted a full five years. He believed that he would find plentiful breeding stock for the Stud in Bokhara; and given the perennially lawless state of Afghanistan, planned to reach that city via Ladakh, Yarkand and Kashgar. After nearly a year of travel (during which he was delayed by being summoned to Lahore to meet Ranjit Singh), he arrived in Leh in September 1820 by the route of the Rohtang, Baralacha and Taglang Passes. There he stayed for close on two years, while negotiating with the authorities for permission to enter Yarkand. Finally admitting defeat on that front, he left Ladakh by the Kashmir route, spending several months in Srinagar arranging his onward journey and documenting Kashmir’s products, especially the shawl industry in which he had a particular interest. On via Peshawar and Kabul, he finally arrived in Bokhara in February1825—where he was largely disappointed in his efforts to find good horses. He appears to have died a few months later, of fever, near Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. (But see the sub-folder in this section, titled ‘The Moorcroft Mystery’, which presents the evidence for an alternative scenario of his last days.)

Moorcroft’s MSS, together with a few articles that he published in the learned jounals of the time, provide us with snapshots of western Tibet, the western Himalaya, Ladakh, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Bokhara in the early 1820s that are found nowhere else, and are an indispensable resource for the history of these areas.


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